Dr. Curtis details the impact of Sputnik for magazine
For the 50th anniversary of the dawn of the Space Age, Electronic Design magazine interviewed Dr. Anthony Curtis (Mass Communication) about the engineering details of Sputnik, Earth's first artificial satellite.
The Space Age roared to life on Friday, Oct. 4, 1957, when Russia's "Old Number Seven" rocket lobbed a thermometer, a silver-zinc battery and a radio transmitter in a 23-inch polished aluminum ball from the surface of Earth to a place so high above the atmosphere it could not come all the way down again, Dr. Curtis recalled.
"The satellite was pressurized with nitrogen circulated by a cooling fan," Dr. Curtis said. 'The thermometer changed the frequency of the two radio beacons."
Attached to the outside of the aluminum ball were four long radio antenna whips.
"Sputnik twirled around the world every 96 minutes for three weeks in orbit 588 miles above our heads, transmitting a beep-beep radio signal," Curtis said. 'Ham radio operators were thrilled when they could tune it in."
After 92 days, Sputnik fell from orbit into the atmosphere where it burned on Jan. 4, 1958.
Dr. Curtis authored several books on space. The professor's Web site Space Today Online is in the collection of the National Science Digital Library, the National Science Foundation's online library of resources for science, technology, engineering and mathematics education and research.
"The marvelous human feat was the result of almost 300 years of thinking about it," Curtis explained.
English mathematician Isaac Newton, working on his new theory of gravitation in 1687, uncovered the theoretical possibility of orbiting an artificial satellite of Earth. However, it wasn't until the early 20th century that scientists figured out how to send a satellite high enough and fast enough to place it in orbit around Earth, Dr. Curtis said.
Russian schoolteacher Konstantin Tsiolkovsky conceived the theories and American tinkerer Robert Goddard conducted experiments which confirmed a satellite might be carried to space on a rocket. World War II research showed the rockets then available were too weak to boost a satellite to orbit, Dr. Curtis said.
After the war, research on rockets for upper-atmosphere research and military use was extensive. By 1954, engineers knew they would be able to launch a satellite to Earth orbit sooner or later, he said.
An International Geophysical Year (IGY) was announced for 1958. An IGY committee asked nations to launch science satellites for space exploration. The U.S. and the U.S.S.R. got down to work on satellites. Meanwhile, a weapons race was underway in the 1950s as the U.S. and U.S.S.R. built the first hydrogen bombs. America decided to use airplanes to carry its H-bombs, while Russia turned to a new means of transporting the heavy nuclear weapons to targets -- intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The first successful launch of the R-7 ICBM was Aug. 21, 1957. The Soviets immediately began preparing for a September 17 satellite launch to honor the 100th anniversary of Tsiolkovsky's birth. The leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, praised ICBM chief designer Sergei Korolev as head of the spaceflight program. Less well known was Mikhail Tikhonravov who designed the satellite.
The launch did not go off on schedule, but on Oct. 4, 1957, Sputnik lifted off at 10:28 p.m. Moscow time. The space race was born as Sputnik was launched atop an ICBM redirected to outer space. The satellite's beeping radio signal startled the world.
"Americans were horrified," Dr. Curtis said. "It really squashed our ego."
Sputnik's beeping radio signal woke up the world. In the US, it increased national awareness of science and engineering as careers and drove many people into what would become successful engineering careers. They were the engineers who would send humans to the Moon 12 years later and even later establish stations in space, Dr. Curtis said.